5 ways to make challenge-based learning work in primary

We need to stretch our pupils – and this is how it can be done, argues Lisa Worgan

Lisa Worgan

EYFS challenge

The aim of many teachers in primary is challenge-based learning, but how well do you think you manage to do it? It can be trickier than we imagine. 

For the uninitiated, challenge-based learning is all about adding real and purposeful questions to thematic topics or themes to drive learning. It allows pupils to both apply acquired knowledge to a purpose and to connect it to the world around them. 

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The approach is underpinned by theories from John Dewey’s work on project-based learning, where challenges:

• are central, not peripheral, to the curriculum;

• are focused on questions or problems that ‘drive’ learning;

• mean students are engaged in a constructive investigation;

• are real – as in realistic, not school-like, and grounded in the world around us.

Effective learning in primary

Challenge-based learning is most effective when used to set an open-ended and purposeful challenge at the very start of the learning journey. For each part of the curriculum, subjects are divided into learning challenge packs (a termly unit of cross-curricular learning).

Some examples of challenge questions include: 

  • "How can we bring the countryside to our city school?’
  • "How can we design a product that solves a problem?"
  • "How can we celebrate our diverse community?"

Every challenge should have a real purpose for a real audience – both aspects of which should often be decided by the pupils as part of their process. 

Every challenge should have a real need – about access, opportunity or community for instance. 

Five tips for primary learning

If you are interested in giving such an approach a go, think about the following ideas for developing practice in your teaching and learning:

1. Ask yourself: why am I asking children to learn about this? You need to come up with a challenge question that will enable pupils to apply their learning – the learning has to come first, not the challenge question. 

2. You need to fully understand the purpose of the challenge: do you know who it is for and what it will achieve? Central to challenge-based learning is a real purpose. If you are struggling, go back and rework the challenge question. 

3. Consider your role as facilitating teacher. Think about how you can frame the learning as a series of questions or sub-challenges for children to consider. Using a structure can help this, for instance through the use of Belle Wallace’s "Tasc" – thinking actively in a social context – wheel. Through Tasc, children are able to undertake a self-explanatory, collaborative, idea-sharing and developmental approach to their learning. Each section of the Tasc wheel has a specific task for children to undertake.

4. In planning, teachers can use a "so that..." format when setting writing learning outcomes – with the learning as the focus of the objective and the "so that..." statement outlining the application. If we take the example of creating a pop-up museum, examples of these might be:

  • We are learning to place dates in chronological order so that we can create an accurate timeline in our museum.
  • We are learning to create a plan view so that we design the layout of our museum space
  • We are learning to create QR codes so that we can make information interactive for visitors

5.   Finally, you need to ensure the knowledge is mapped in a clear sequence, so that children can learn the content in the best order for both the learning objective and the completion of the challenge. 

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Lisa Worgan

Lisa Worgan is head of curriculum at Victoria Academies Trust

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